“Breathe through your abdomen.”
“Pull your quads up.”
We hear the wise words and suggestions of our instructors throughout the hour, telling us how to move, how to stand, and how to position our bodies for the greatest effect.
In yoga, one common theme (or so I hear from my clients. Admittedly, my yoga attendance is sporadic at best. Blame it on my yang-centric disposition) is to breathe through your abdomen. This makes a lot of sense, especially in a culture of stressed out people such as ours. We attend yoga class to get centered, get calm, and relax. Abdominal breathing stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, changing the hormonal balance to a chemical mixture more supportive of calmness and peace. Thus, meditation and yoga practices benefit from the abdominal breath.
It is natural, then, to want to cultivate these qualities outside of class. Standing in line at the coffee shop, you consciously belly breathe. Walking the dog, you practice it again. You have fallen into a common trap: mistaking the anatomical cues of your instructors to mean: this is how you must live your life!
While abdominal breathing is useful for achieving a certain state of body and mind, we also need to maintain the capacity to breathe into the upper thorax. Indeed, we should be able to expand the ribcage in all directions--up, down, left, right, forward, and back--depending on the physiological need at any given moment. You only use 15% of your lung capacity while you are abdominal breathing. Thoracic breathing uses 75%. This is why, when you are doing activities that require a high energetic output, you revert to thoracic breathing. Furthermore, abdominal breathing exerts more pressure on the pelvic floor. The pelvic floor holds up your visceral cavity, including the bladder and (for women) the uterus. Constant, ceaseless abdominal breathing needlessly puts excess pressure on the pelvic floor, potentially weakening its functional ability to keep the visceral contents contained.
I’m not saying don’t breathe through your abdomen. If you’ve begun hyperventilating just reading that last paragraph, you definitely need to do some deep breathing in order to calm your system. What I am saying is that you don’t need to practice deep breathing all the time. Just as you don’t need to practice thoracic breathing all the time. Normal breathing inflates both the ribcage and the upper belly equally and to partial capacity. So allow normal breath to occur most of the time. We want to retain the capacity to fully breathe thoracically and abdominally when needed, realizing that they are two ends of the spectrum of possibility. And we should generally inhabit the middle of that spectrum, visiting the extremes on occasion when the situation, or your yoga instructor, calls for it.